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Retail therapy

Why do women shop so much? Fall in love with shoes, bags, jewels and dresses that could be outdated next month? Blame evolution. In early human societies, women specialised in child rearing, "nesting" and foraging for food, while males hunted for meat and defended their territory. By necessity, women evolved to have better peripheral vision than men, enabling them to see in a wider arc and monitor any danger approaching the nest or any subtle changes in the environment. Men developed the ability to see clearly in front of them and over a longer distance, allowing them to zero in on and pursue targets in the distance and not be distracted from that target.

Compared with men, women are better at detecting very subtle colour changes and can describe colours in great detail. Women are also 10 times more sensitive to touch than men, as well as being more finely attuned to taste and smell, making the shopping experience far more sensual for them. These sensuous qualities enable women to nurture and nest effectively. Of course, they also make them avid and effective foragers of luxury goods. In department stores, they scan the environment rapidly, take in lots of details and detect subtle differences in merchandise. Women lovingly fondle silk and cashmere, sniff perfume with a look of rapt attention on their faces, and talk about colours such as taupe and eau de nil.

For women, shopping is like talking. It can amble and take on surprising and even impulsive directions. It doesn't need a point. It can be enjoyed over two or three hours as an unstructured, relaxing and energising social activity. Consequently, having the pressure of a target - such as having to get a particular outfit for a wedding - can kill the pleasure and make it very stressful.

Men, on the other hand, shop like hunters, following a narrow itinerary to hunt down a specific target, which is why it can be so stressful when men and women shop together.

Women value communication as an activity in itself. When shopping with a companion, they like to speak their innermost thoughts out loud, considering all the options, the pros and cons, the possibilities. When making a buying decision, they often conduct simultaneous conversations with the sales staff ("Do you have that in grey? I've always loved grey"), with the companion ("Do you think this suits my complexion?") and with themselves ("Why am I buying this? I don't even need it").

Men, on the other hand, talk to convey information and find it much harder to filter out distractions. So all this talk makes it hard for men to concentrate on what they think they are being asked to do: give advice on which item she should purchase.

But very often women aren't actually asking for advice - just affirmation that they've made the right choice. Or, just as likely, the doubts the woman expresses are just an excuse to have a really good natter about the pros and cons of the purchase as a way of forming an intimate bond with her companion. Other women understand these rules. For many men, it's a foreign language.

Women also shop to change their mood, as they change moods more often and experience anxiety, sadness and depression more often than men. They also experience more shame and guilt - so while women often shop to make themselves feel better ("I deserve a treat"), they're also more likely to feel guilty or shameful about it when they feel they have spent too much. This is why there's a growing trend for women to buy luxury goods in cash, to hide their purchases from their partners, because cash, unlike a credit card, doesn't talk. Women also say, however, that they get a kick from pulling the wool over their partner's eyes.

For less affluent women, the temptation of overspending can create serious conflict, but in general, shopping works for women. It distracts them from ruminating over negative feelings or, conversely, helps them to celebrate feeling good ("I am feeling great, so let's go shopping and then I'll feel even better"). Women often report that they make very good buys when they are feeling good about themselves (but also more impulsive buys).

Why do women have such extreme moods? One explanation is that women invest more in relationships. Their moods are more dependent on how others feel, due to their greater empathy, and they also feel more responsible for making personal relationships work. Women are more sensitive to even very subtle changes in relationship quality, and react more directly and immediately to others' feelings. Women are more likely to "silence the self" in the interest of maintaining a positive emotional tone in a relationship or to avoid conflict. This leaves them with less power and independence in relationships, and they are more likely to find other means of intimacy - such as shopping.

Teenage girls quickly fall into this pattern of finding happiness in the mall. In childhood, girls have higher self-esteem than boys and experience less personal distress. They do not experience themselves as being "too responsible for relationships" or having to "silence the self". This emerges in early adolescence, as they engage with opposite sex. As their self-esteem dips (it increases for boys) they experience more personal distress.

The consequence of "self-silencing" is that women (and adolescent girls) find it hard to find a good balance between caring for themselves and caring for others. The more that women sacrifice themselves for others, the more likely they are to swing to the opposite extreme of indulging themselves. But they often experience this as "selfish" and are more likely to engage in this self-indulgence in secret, thus leading to feelings of guilt and shame. This is what makes shopping so addictive - as does any activity that legitimises women caring for themselves. Witness the way L'Oréal's "Because you're worth it" slogan entered the lexicon.

So the next time you see a woman wandering (seemingly) aimlessly around a fashion store, or contemplating a designer bag, remember she's not just shopping. It's much more serious than that. This woman is expressing her evolutionary destiny, or she is busy changing her mood, or she is recovering from all that exhausting work of relationship maintenance. Or all three. Now you know.

Originally published in the Irish Times. 

Posted: 10 March 2007